Up and down in Puget Sound
Die-hard salmon gillnetters ride the waves of fish politics, variable returns and creative marketing in the Pacific Northwest
By Matt Marinkovich
The sun was low in the November sky as I drifted for chum salmon on my Puget Sound gillnetter, Satisfaction, just south of Seattle in 2009. I kept watch for sport boats so I could flag them off my net, when I saw Joe Popich on his bowpicker, the Big Dog, round Alki Point.
"See any fish?" he asked as he pulled up to me.
"I've been on it for about a half an hour," I replied. "I ran it, and gave it a good look from the flying bridge... I didn't see any."
"I can't believe it!" Popich exclaimed. "There's no one on either side of you for a mile — and no fish? There should be fish everywhere right now. I've been fishing here 40 years, and I've never seen it so slow! There used to be hundreds of boats and we'd get more than this!" Then Popich looked around. "Where is everybody?"
"My brother Fred's fishing down below off of Vashon Island. He says he has a seal working his net, so there must be something there. I think most everybody else is in Hood Canal. I heard it was slow over there, too."
"Ha! Serves 'em right — a couple slow years will starve 'em out. Then we'll have it all to ourselves again!"
Just a few years earlier there were hardly any boats and lots of fish. When the price came up, more guys geared up for a piece of the action; but still, only about 70 boats are actively fishing.
There was a time when Puget Sound supported a huge commercial fishing industry. Every harbor was lined with gillnetters and purse seiners. They fished most of the week during the season; the purse seiners fished days, and the gillnetters fished nights.
Ralph Shulich, from Tacoma, started gillnetting in Puget Sound in the early 1960s. "I was fishing in West Pass (along Vashon Island) with a 120-mesh net made of 600-filiment multistrand," Shulich recalls. "There were over 500 boats fishing when I started, and it was tough to make money. Then some guys quit, and it dropped down to 300 to 400 boats. Then the money was alright."
Today the nets are made of monofilament nylon, or a 6- to 10-filament multistrand. The mesh size ranges from 5 to 7 1/2 inches, depending on the species targeted. As always, the nets are limited to 300 fathoms (about a third of a mile) long. There is no limit on depth, but usually we fish around 200 meshes, when not fishing in shallow terminal areas.
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